José González: music for every age

Photo by Malin Johansson
Photo by Malin Johansson

Swedish guitar virtuoso José González graced Vancouver last Saturday with a sold-out show at the Imperial. Though touring in support of his latest album, Vestiges & Claws (Mute, 2015), he evenly balanced his new songs with some of his most beloved hits.

Iceland’s Ólöf Arnalds set the night’s genial tone with a talkative set. “Happy to see the sea again!” she said, greeting Vancouver. Halfway into her first song, she already reeled in the crowd: “I was wondering if you could do me a favour. Sing this one note?” They happily joined her chorus of “oooh”s, and Arnalds thanked them as she played the tune.

Arnalds continued to endear by dedicating a couple of songs: “This song is for my son who is seven. He just lost his front tooth.” She then performed “Turtledove” for her partner who usually played with her but was unable to partake in her North American tour. The audience “aww”ed at her little lament.

“Such a beautiful room,” Arnalds said, admiring the Imperial. Inspired by the venue’s acoustics, she stepped away from the microphone and closed with an a cappella Icelandic rhyme. The crowd was so engaged, they shushed all chatter that disrupted the moment. Though Arnalds only played for 20 minutes, she received more than welcoming applause.

Likewise, José González emerged to a rapt ovation. “Stories We Build, Stories We Tell” explores anger and the human impulse for revenge, but the rest of the night’s mood remained positively engrossing.

After the next song, “Killing For Love”, González commenced the first of many finger-snap-alongs with “Hand on Your Heart”. Similarly, “The Nest” (which was also snap-worthy, it turned out), started the night’s first whispered sing-along. After a few solo numbers, “Hints” amongst them, his band returned for the clap-filled “What Will”.

González ended with a string of his most popular hits. The cheers seemingly escalated with each subsequent song, starting with his immaculate cover of Portishead’s “Teardrop”. Breakthrough single “Down the Line” followed, then the meditative “Cycling Trivialities”. Although some intentionally mistimed claps from the audience threatened to derail “Trivialities”, which should have been the night’s most sentimental moment, González took the act in stride. He let a small laugh escape and countered by snapping his fingers which encouraged the more considerate fans to do the same.

The covers and hits continued into González’s encore, first with the Knife’s “Heartbeats”. Then Arnalds joined him for an unfathomably sweet duet of the Velvet Underground’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror”.

Crested by a navy blue banner of a mountain range, a moon, and other cosmic patterns, González appeared saintly, the centrepiece of a visitation scene with fans in the front row. Yolk-orange lights cast down behind him, exalting him further with a contrasting aura; his visage remained in shadows. Appropriately, González looked particularly reverent during  “Every Age”, a song on which he contemplates the fact that every generation faces struggles, however specific to a given time period or systemic. But a positive truth comes to light when watching and hearing audiences react to José González too: every generation enjoys a beautiful musical performance, however styles change.

Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu